After years of legislative wrangling, ‘peace in the valley’ on coal ash

January 25, 2019 5:00 am

Dominion Energy’s Chesterfield Power Station is one of four sites across the state that is subject to new coal ash pond closure restrictions under compromise legislation that passed the General Assembly and was signed by the governor. (Photo by Ryan M. Kelly)

Republicans and Democrats, and perhaps most importantly, Dominion Energy, appear to have struck an accord that will ensure that some 30 million tons of coal ash at four sites around the state won’t be left to leak heavy metals and other contaminants into waterways.

The deal was rolled out by Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam, Speaker of the House Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, and other lawmakers at a news conference Thursday morning, but the people actually tasked with ensuring that the deal’s various provisions get hammered into a piece of legislation were at a Senate subcommittee meeting later in the day merging substitute bills as lobbyists for environmental and business interests stood sentry.

“There is peace in the valley on a bill,” said Sen. Ben Chafin, R-Russell, chairman of a special subcommittee created by Sen. Frank Wagner, R-Virginia Beach, chairman of the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee, to evaluate a series of bills dealing with how the ash ponds should be closed and how the costs should be recovered by Dominion.

There’s a lot of lip service about bipartisanship in the General Assembly.

But for an example of what it really looks like, consider that Sens. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield, and Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, have been fighting to slow or alter Dominion’s prior plans to cap the leaking coal ash ponds in place for the past three legislative sessions.

Though there appears to be a critical mass of support behind getting the ash out of unlined pits next to waterways now, it was a fairly lonely proposition for both lawmakers with their respective caucuses not that long ago.

For example, on Thursday, Sen. Rosalyn Dance, D-Petersburg, a longtime Dominion ally whose district includes the Chesterfield Power Station and who was a skeptic about “clean closure” of the ash ponds in the recent past, pushed Thursday to become a chief co-sponsor of the bill that would require exactly that.

Also, while he didn’t exactly have a stainless record on the environment — chiefly as a result of his cheerleading for the Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley pipelines — former Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s administration deserves credit for stepping in and restoring provisions to a Surovell and Chase bill in 2017 that prevented Dominion from getting permits to close the ash ponds before detailed site assessments of existing contamination and other closure options were completed.

That delay, together with a ruling that found Dominion’s Chesapeake ash ponds were leaking arsenic into the Elizabeth River and another legislative pause last year, allowed a better picture of what was happening at the sites to come into focus, including the extent of groundwater contamination.

The combined effect made it tough for the utility to plow ahead with covering the ponds with a synthetic top and layer of turf and call it a day, a method that environmental groups warned would allow the ash, already sitting in groundwater, to continue to leach out arsenic, lead, radium, chromium and other contaminants for years to come and potentially require a more expensive permanent solution down the road.

“It just goes to show that slowing this process down really allowed us to understand the issue better,” said Nate Benforado, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center.

The rough sketches of the consensus bill require the utility to recycle for use in concrete and other products a certain portion of the ash — at least 6.8 million cubic yards from at least two sites, according to Surovell’s bill — or removing it to a lined landfill onsite or offsite. A transportation plan is required to minimize the impact of what could be major truck traffic on adjacent property owners.

Surovell’s version of the legislation, which was mashed up with Wagner’s Thursday, says the utility must also offer to pay for connections to public water, or provide water testing where that’s not feasible, to any residence within a half mile of the coal ash ponds.

Surovell has constituents who blame Dominion’s Possum Point coal ash ponds for contaminating their drinking water wells.

Wagner’s piece, which was tacked onto the end, will allow Dominion to recover the clean-up costs through a rider, an added charge tacked onto customers’ bill, but caps that recovery at $225 million a year and limits the maximum increase in the monthly bill of a typical residential customer to $5.

Wagner said truck trips will be minimized by requiring Dominion to build new landfills onsite where possible. In the case of the shuttered Chesapeake Power Station, which sits on spit of land jutting out into the Elizabeth River, the ash will have to be excavated to a nearby landfill.

“Nobody wants to pay a little bit more on their electric bill,” Wagner said. “We’re dealing with it now and we’re dealing with it permanently.”

Wagner said the idea is for the utility to recoup direct expenses on roughly $2 billion in cleanup costs, but only earn a rate of return (profit) on new capital investments, such as onsite landfills, pegged at about $1 billion. That makes the total price tag about $3 billion, subject to review by the State Corporation Commission, Wagner said.

Based on Thursday’s confusing meeting, however, expect provisions of the bill to continue to be tweaked. For example, Surovell’s bill requires Dominion to consider rail in its transportation plans for the ash while Wagner says rail is out because of the high cost carriers are expected to charge.

Also in the mix is EnCap-It Solutions, a Virginia firm that has been pitching its ash encapsulation technology as a lower cost solution to the problem. The company attempted to gain a foothold for itself in the new bill via its lobbyist, former state Del. Dave Albo, a Fairfax Republican, though they seemed to have been left in the lurch Thursday.

“We all got to nod heads, sing ‘Kumbaya’ and get this out of here,” said Sen. John Cosgrove, R-Chesapeake.



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Robert Zullo
Robert Zullo

Robert spent 13 years as a reporter and editor at weekly and daily newspapers before becoming editor of the Virginia Mercury in 2018. He was a staff writer and managing editor at Worrall Community Newspapers in Union, N.J., before spending five years in south Louisiana covering hurricanes, oil spills and Good Friday crawfish boils as a reporter and city editor for the The Courier and the Daily Comet newspapers in Houma and Thibodaux. He covered Richmond city hall for the Richmond Times-Dispatch from 2012 to 2013 and worked as a general assignment and city hall reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette from 2013 to 2016. He returned to Richmond in 2016 to cover energy, environment and transportation for the Richmond Times-Dispatch. He grew up in Miami, Fla., and central New Jersey. A former waiter, armored car guard and appliance deliveryman, he is a graduate of the College of William and Mary. Contact him at [email protected]